Football: Sheepshanks adopts the visionary position

The man who would be chairman is playing a shrewd political game.
AS IF there weren't enough politicians at the hustings. Amid those seeking votes for Scottish parliaments, Welsh assemblies, local councils and European elections, there was the spectacle last week of a flesh-pressing David Sheep-shanks, accompanied by spin-doctoring aides distributing manifestos.

There was even talk of his "constituency" and "devolving powers" to the county Football Associations as the Ipswich chairman, who for two years has performed a similar role at the Football League, began his election campaign for chairmanship of the FA. It looks like being a vigorous one as the man in situ, Geoff Thompson, is favourite to make permanent the position he acquired as caretaker on the departure of Keith Wiseman.

It may be not how prospective candidates for chairmanship of the FA have traditionally made their bid for power. But then it will take a major political coup to make the transition from being the sauce and mayonnaise manufacturing chief who has revitalised Portman Road to becoming the big cheese at Lancaster Gate.

Sheepshanks has "a vision" - one of his buzzwords - for the game and uses his club experience as a model. "Fours ago, we were in disarray," he said. "We had been relegated, we'd had nine-nil humiliations at Manchester United and people said we were going to do a Swindon and be relegated twice.

"We agreed a vision which was that it was realistic to get Ipswich back into the Premiership by the year 2000. To do that we had an action plan which was to get youth development right, we had to get commercial practice working effectively, we had to do far more in the community with the club, and most of all we had to show our ambition and wear it on our sleeves and be accountable by our results. Year on year it has got better and just a post [Wolves' Paul Simpson striking Bradford's] stopped us going into the Premiership on Sunday, and God willing, in three games' time we will go up. There is a very clear parallel with what I'm proposing as a way forward for the FA."

Sheepshanks is playing a smart card as the FA prepare to shuffle their deck following the loss of Wiseman and chief executive Graham Kelly. Despite the slick presentation of a moderniser, he has attempted in the "The Way Forward", his election manifesto, not unduly to frighten the horses, or their riders, in the backwoods - the county representatives who comprise the majority of the 92-strong FA Council. However, he does propose a board of directors, in which he hopes "both sides of the game will have equal representation" and which will combine "vision, drive, judgement and stability with the strategic direction necessary for our national game."

Unlike policemen, FA chairmen never appear to get younger. Should Sheepshanks win that will change. A debonair, articulate 46-year-old, a successful businessman and "a gregarious and caring family man", he might be an archetypal thrusting young Tory candidate.

Though he has a tendency towards attempting to be all things to all men, Sheepshanks is adamant that change is required. "Every organisation needs vision, sense of purpose and drive, and a plan, and accountability for delivering it," he said. "There are great skills and strengths in football. The FA have excellent prowess in regulating competitions and fixtures and discipline, but the area of challenge is taking the game forward and promoting it and that is an area, certainly at county level and in many respects at national level, where perhaps neither the skills or finance have been present. And there hasn't been a co-ordinated plan with everyone to get behind."

His plan includes "controlling the influx of European players", and Sheepshanks concedes that he would like to see sport treated as it is in America, where it is regarded as a separate entity in terms of legislation. "There is a lot to be said for it, but we can't do anything in this country unless there are changes in the Treaty of Rome," said Sheepshanks, who was instrumental in winning back a Uefa Cup place for the League Cup winners by determined lobbying.

"Fifa and Uefa are absolutely united on this and are already holding high-level discussions with Brussels. We must get right behind that initiative. We don't want to shoot ourselves in the foot; we want to continue attracting international talent to play in our country and continue empowering the Premiership to be as successful as it can be. But we need a balance, just as we need to strike one on the question of loyalty to club and country commitment.

"Winning the World Cup is so important. It changes the nation's morale, the economy, nearly everything to do with the country. The clubs and players must be totally committed to those dates which are laid down for international fixtures."

Some Premier League chairmen may have something to say about that. They are also unlikely to be totally enamoured by his call for a more "equitable distribution" of TV money, a subject which is largely responsible for his entering football's political arena in the first place. "I never envisaged I'd be in this position," he said. "Even becoming chairman of the Football League was certainly not by design. There was a great amount of dissatisfaction among League members when the decision was made by the Premiership to do their own deal with Sky - no criticism of Sky I hasten to add - and we are still paying the price of that. It was an horrifically awful decision and it gets worse day by day, frankly, because we are now disconnected. The wealth of the Premier League continues to grow and the gulf between them and the Football League is widening.

"That inspired me to establish the support of the rest of the First Division, together with a few others who picked up the cudgels. Eventually, we agreed a new vision and management plan for Football League, which included bringing in a new chief executive [Richard Scudamore, who it is believed Sheep-shanks would like to see in a similar role at the FA], making the whole thing more accountable and more dynamic.

Just three games - the first against Bolton in the play-off first leg today - stand between Ipswich and Premiership status. "When you give a very large part of yourself to trying to deliver something, and it comes down to an afternoon like last Sunday, it's very disappointing, but you have to have the inner perseverance to go on. If we don't make it this year, we will next." No doubt the same sentiments might apply to his candidature.

Will the councillors follow Sheepshanks, or will they support Thompson like sheep? The Ipswich chairman would like to present himself as the man for the new millennium. But that does not necessarily mean that he is the man for the old FA.